Wednesday, February 01, 2023

Dymphna Nugent’s weekly book review for the Waterford News & Star in conjunction with The Book Centre, John Roberts Square

DESPITE its release in March 2022, the enduring appeal of this debut ensures it still features prominently in the top fiction charts for early 2023. Someone kindly reminded me of the book at a recent meeting in City Hall and I was glad of the reminder because it has wrapped up literary January beautifully for me. At the moment, I’m wading through early proofs of books to hit shelves in April so this was exactly what I wanted, a 1960s set book about a witty, intelligent scientist who is living in a society awash with male dominance; a society where clever women are a novelty to be humoured. If you didn’t consider yourself a feminist before reading ‘Lessons in Chemistry’, that mindset won’t last long because the concepts explored are akin to a red rag to a bull.

Those who watched The Queen’s Gambit will be familiar with the challenges women faced when they excelled in a male dominated field, working twice as hard for half the begrudging recognition they received.

Set in 1961, Elizabeth, our main character in ‘Lessons in Chemistry’ is a single mother and a very reluctant star of a cooking show for housewives called ‘Supper at Six’. She is only participating in the show as a way of paying the bills, in a former life she was a research chemist. In that life, she fell in love with fellow academic, Calvin, but that happiness soon turned to jealousy and rivalry on Calvin’s part, so much so that it consumes him.

Finding herself pregnant and out-of-wedlock, Elizabeth loses her hard-won job at the Hastings Research Institute and there is an overwhelming feeling that 1960s society, with its oppressive traditions and misogynistic views towards women, has triumphed. It seems to have destroyed this woman who sought to challenge the narrative with her intellect, talent, and courage. When a male colleague at the institute steals her research paper and publishes it under his name, the sound of defeat is deafening.

When faced with nothing but high concrete walls in life, people will often reinvent themselves in the most unexpected of ways. Finding herself drowning in the responsibilities of a demanding and lively five-year-old daughter, Elizabeth accepts the job on the cooking show, believing that she could use chemistry to teach people about the food that really matters – the kind that unlocks our brains, shapes our futures, and motivates us as people, as women, and as families.

Suddenly, the stereotypically female chore of cooking in the 1960s was a craft, finely tuned through scientific knowledge. Her mantra: ‘Cooking is chemistry, and chemistry is life’, began to speak to women everywhere, it was a life lesson much more than it was a cookery lesson. Women become dared to change the status quo, to rise up in arms against the same, tired representation of what women should be.

A respect is garnered in the wider society for the role of the homemaker and women claw back their own story, demand their own respect, by fuelling their need for change with a thirst for knowledge and education. A powerful book, drawing distinct parallels with the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and the women’s liberation movement, it also echoes from the 1960s right up until today where the movement is more important than ever.

As a debut novel, it’s not perfect, but it is impactful and encourages a call-to-arms for women everywhere.

Dymphna Nugent contributes reviews to the Irish Examiner, the Irish Times, and the Waterford News & Star

By Dymphna Nugent
Contact Newsdesk: 051 874951

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